The climate in winter is gentle. Dark green pines and cedars pierce the azure skies, their shapes mocking the surrounding mountains: some rounded, some upright and pointed. Pretty scents assail the nose — sweet white clover and others less defined. Bougainvillea trails purple and rose over stone and stucco and always the hush of the dark blue sea whispers soft songs to soothe the scene. The sun gazes down, unperturbed, blessing the land and its people.
This is the coast of Spain, the Costa del Sol, in January. The pace is leisurely, traffic flowing at a restful 80 km per hour along the old Roman road, now the A7, slowing to 40 at the many gentle roundabouts, so that cars move in easy waves, ebbing and flowing like the ocean the road runs beside. The vistas are awe-inspiring and so many that awe soon turns to expectation.
Populations are punctuated all along the coast with pockets of dark pine forest covering the undulating landscapes. Narrow streetscapes in these communities run free-style, supporting walled gardens and hidden houses, in a build-it-where-you-can pattern. There are restaurants every few hundred metres to feed the frenzy of sun-seekers that will soon descend on the coast from all over the world. The Spanish Mediterranean is a favourite destination for fog-bound Brits, whose varied accents colour the English spoken by many of the tradesmen and servers.
In our suite, the colours are beige and white with a touch of the dark blue of the sea. Shapes are rounded, echoing the curves of flowers and flowers are the inspiration for light fixtures and fabrics.
The food is plentiful and good. Local olives and chorizo sausage make converts of our companions whose edges have been smoothed by seven days of serenity away from their stress-ridden lives at home. The local wine helps.
In the towns and cities, people crowd together living amicably in layers along slender streets lined with their small but mighty cars and buzzing motorbikes. Impeccable spatial skills are required to maneuver some of the byways where only a pencil-width on either side separates the moving from the stationary. I drive as one with the rented BMW that I already seem to know more intimately than my Mercury at home. In Marbella I get off the main avenue and end up in congested alleys that were surely meant only for pedestrians.
In Gibraltar, we climb, climb, climb to the top of the rock, up a one-way track that leads to the summit and an encounter with some aggressive monkeys (they call them Barbary apes), one of which attempts to join us inside the car through an open window. As we descend the rock, the track turns into winding, narrowed streets and it is with relief that we finally reach level land and wider boulevards.
We are innocent of the murky doings of Gibraltar, which is said to be the gateway to Europe for the cocaine trade. All along the coast, magnificent villas and communities are being built with the proceeds of this traffic — money that finds construction a convenient laundering method.
We visit Puerto Banus to spy on the rich and famous, who are wisely tucked away out of sight, leaving the gawkers to the hawkers that try to sell us knock-off designer wares as we study the yachts and overpriced products in the exclusive seaside shops along the quay.
Another day, we meander up a mountain above Fuengirola to reach a tourist village, Mijas Pueblo, which offers fairy-tale vistas of the land rolling down toward the sea. One of the white villages of Andalusia, Mijas Pueblo is like a movie set, perfectly staged like Portmeirion, the tiny mock village on the coast of Wales where they filmed The Fugitive. The shops are hungry for business because it is winter and the merchants flock around us, offering buttery lambskin leather jackets at wildly fluctuating prices.
We explore the cheap market at Marbella, visit the giant La Canada mall there and another in Fuengirola, gleaning post-Christmas goodies at very reasonable prices.
We trek to Granada, seeking the gardens of the Alhambra. Our route takes us high into the mountains, which are covered in snow – the first time it has snowed here in three years, we learn later. The wind is strong, the perfect roads are winding and all but empty. We stumble through Granada, thanks to Google maps, which drop us off in the middle of town on a road closed to all but taxis and busses. But we follow our noses and find a way to the complex of palaces and gardens.
The gardens are magnificent and so absorbing that we miss the time for the tour of the palace (as if I cared). In spite of the cold air, my camera is hot from taking pictures.
We return via the coastal route, past the marching windmills and around the mighty dam, oozing through tunnel after tunnel, slipping through the mountains we climbed earlier. The views are breathtaking, the weather warming as we wend our way down to the sea.
Back on the coast, all around us are palms trees and oranges, cactus-like succulents just bursting into bloom, olives and, we are told, almonds just ready to burst into bud. Brilliant scarlet honeysuckle smothers white washed walls and dates hang heavy on some palms. I love the gorgeous rounded pines and the cork oak trees. I am driving so I can’t satisfy my urge to take photos of all the stunning plants whenever I want to, but their image are seared into my mind.
On the hills above the highway, all along the Costa Del Sol, beautiful urbanizations flaunt their privilege of residing here in the favoured land.
Home now, the images of Spain warm the snow-covered vistas that proclaim the reality of minus 24 (feels like minus 40) weather of Winnipeg in January. Still, the third day after returning, the sun comes out to shine on a fairyland of frost, the trees glittering with ice crystals. The icy air feels good on fevered cheeks and forehead, clearing a jet-lagged brain.
Home is where the heart is, they say, and I am glad to be here. Still, I have to admit that I left a tiny piece of my heart in Andalucia, just as the old song says.
Once you have been to Andalucia and gone away
Your heart will stay in Andalucia
Both night and day . . .